In my review for his last album, Demolition, I accused Ryan Adams' critics of judging him too hard on what it is they expect of him, and they never allow him to be what they expect him to be. It seems as if many critics simply will not allow the man to breathe without criticizing him for doing something wrong, something they don't like--as if they own him. Reviews of his records have been less about his music and more about him, which is a real shame, because he is what they have longed for--a talented young songwriter who more than delivers, when allowed to. Seriously, Adams is no slouch in the songwriting department. The man's more prolific than Bob Pollard, and his outtakes are better than some people's best song. Unlike Pollard, Adams' outtakes and rejects are never trashy, lo-fi recordings, but are legitimate, full-band outtakes that sound real good.
But what is it about him that gets the critics in a snit? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that they built up a hypestorm around him, building up this image, and then holding him to it. It ain't fair, you know, because you should never be forced to live up to an image. But who cares? What does any of this have to do with his music? Who held him to this idea that he was going to be this big savior and leader of an alt.country revival, that he was going to come in and make things better in terms of singer-songwriter fare? I mean, isn't he doing a damn good job at it already?
Yes, he is.
Rock N Roll is his third proper album, and it's as much of a departure from Gold as Gold was from Heartbreaker. Better still, it's a better record. Gold had its moments, but it's true, it wasn't necessarily his best work. Last year's outtake collection, Demolition was a shocking record; it showed that his rejects from that time were a vast improvement, and were generally stronger. Still, not every player hits a home run up at bat, and if Gold faltered a little, so be it, and Adams showed that he still was capable. So it comes as no shock that Rock N Roll would be equally impressive, if not better than his last album.
Rock N Roll is as it is named--a rock record. Better still, it's a great rock record. And why not? Adams has already proven to be masterful at other styles of music, so it's really no surprise that his rock band experiment would also be worthy--and it is. Mostly. Just take a listen to that opening track, "This Is It," where he piles on the crunchy guitars. "Don't waste my time/This is it/This is really happening" is one helluva punch, aimed directly at the jawbone of those critics who simply dismiss him. Luckily, it's an effective punch, and the song is killer, and Adams' lays down his cards very quickly--Rock N Roll is a no-bullshit album, striking with a punch that doesn't let up through "Shallow" "1974" and "Luminol."
Thankfully, the rest of the album never disappoints. While Rock N Roll does have a harder edge than his previous records--his Rolling Stones covers should have proven a hint as to where he was going musicwise--he does occasionally pop in some really tender, melodic moments. "Wish You Were Here" harkens back to the great Whiskeytown days, sounding like a lost outtake from Faithless Street's bonus Baseball Park session. The real winner, though, is "So Alive;" it's a tender Britpop-influenced number, with Adams' rough voice becoming touchingly tender. In fact, the main complaint I have with Rock N Roll is that his softer, sadder, tender side seems to have disappeared--well, for this album at least. After all, the man did make the excellently sad Heartbreaker.
While I will admit that Rock N Roll's harder edge was a bit of a shock on first listen, it didn't take long for its groove to open up. Yeah, Ryan Adams made a rock record. Big deal. It's still good. Adams is still brilliant, and he's only getting better. Rock N Roll is only one side of Adams' talent, the Love Is Hell is another, and the only way this album could have possibly been made better is a combination of the two sides, and it should be noted that Lost Highway was wrong about Adams' rejected album. Still, I'm not complaining; Adams is a major force in music, even if nobody likes him--after all, it's hip to hate Ryan Adams, but you know what? I'm sure Adams will still be making music well after said critics have long since retired. Rock N Roll is a great album of rock 'n' roll. Period.